Workers' Wages Are Up, But Security Eludes Many

Stock market volatility ranks last among seven economic concerns of Americans, says study to be released today.

Many Americans couldn't care less when stock prices sail up or down. The majority don't own any shares at all.

What they watch closely is not some electronic stock ticker but the paycheck that arrives every week or two. And, for the typical worker, those checks have been growing fatter of late.

But not fast enough for the AFL-CIO. In a statement timed for Labor Day, the national union federation notes that the median wage - where half of workers earn more and half earn less - is just recovering to its 1989 level.

Now, the crisis in international markets, the organization complains, threatens to slow economic expansion in the US "before employees are compensated with their fair share of the growth."

STILL, wages are starting to recover from their recession lows in the early 1990s. Since 1996, real wages - those after the inflation rate has been subtracted - have risen 2.6 percent annually for typical workers.

"They have regained at least some lost ground," says Jared Bernstein, one of the authors of a forthcoming book, "The State of Working America 1998-99."

But the median-income family - that family at the middle of the income ladder - has not fully recovered financially from the recession or benefited from the 9.1 percent overall growth in US productivity since then.

That typical family would need another 2.3 percent boost in income, about $1,000 a year, to get back to their real income level in 1989.

A Census Bureau report issued this week, which looks at a longer time span, finds that the income of households below the median was essentially stagnant between 1969 and 1996.

Incomes of those households above the median "surged." In other words, the prosperous prospered even more. Other households spun their wheels.

Since 1996, though, lower-income families have been helped by a boost in the minimum wage and by the tight labor market.

Wall Street likes to talk about the growing spread in stock ownership among Americans, seeing it as an offset to wage stagnation. The latest Federal Reserve survey found about 41 percent of households owned stock, directly or indirectly, in 1995. But fewer than one-third of households owned more than $5,000 in stocks.

"Most families can't depend on stock holdings to keep them out of the woods," says Mr. Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. "Their paycheck remains the key determinant of living standards."

The stock market is the least of seven economic concerns of Americans, according to a survey released today by Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J., and the University of Connecticut, Storrs.

The telephone survey of 1,000 adults, conducted in mid-August during a period of high market volatility, found them more concerned about job security, taxes, unemployment, the cost of living, US economic competitiveness, and interest rates.

When the market closed Monday, $1.7 trillion of consumers' paper stock wealth had disappeared from its peak.

Public concern may have "blipped up slightly," says Carl Van Horn, a Rutgers professor. But, he notes, the public does not share the same level of concern as Wall Street professionals or major stock-market investors. Bernstein, the Census Bureau, the labor federation, and others paint an improving but not entirely satisfactory picture for the nation's employees.

Here are some findings:

* Downsizing has hurt. Seventy-two percent of 1,123 randomly selected adults polled for Shell Oil Co. said they preferred "the security of staying with one employer for a long time and moving up the ladder." Only 25 percent said companies are "very or fairly loyal" to their employees.

The share of workers in jobs that last at least 10 years has fallen from 41 percent in 1979 to 35.4 percent in 1996.

* The proportion of wives working year round full time has risen from 17 percent in 1969 to 39 percent in 1996 in households with children. These working moms have raised the incomes of their families, on average, by 25 percent.

Without that boost, their families' incomes would have climbed a mere 2 percent since 1969.

* The typical married-couple family worked 247 more hours per year in 1996 than in 1989.

* Income inequality has continued to grow in the 1990s but at a somewhat slower rate than in the 1980s. Wealth inequality worsened in the 1990s.

Since 1989, the share of wealth held by the top 1 percent of households grew from 37.4 percent of the national total to 39.1 percent last year. In the recent stock-market decline, prices fell back to their levels at the end of 1997. That mostly affects the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans, since they own 90 percent of the value of all stock.

* The most recent poverty rate of 13.7 percent in 1996 is 0.9 percentage points above the 1989 rate of 12.8 percent. That rate, though, probably fell in 1997.

* Pay of corporate chiefs more than doubled between 1989 and 1997. It has risen to 116 times the pay of the average worker - up almost eightfold since 1965.

* Corporate profits - one concern behind the recent troubles on Wall Street - had by 1997 soared to record levels. But the extra income largely failed to trickle down to workers, says Bernstein. He urges the Federal Reserve not to raise interest rates, thus helping preserve tight job markets and the bargaining power of employees - even if this results in a profit squeeze.

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